Story and photos by Joy Hepp
Some of my most powerful experiences in Mexico have also been the most unexpected. One Monday morning in October I was amazed to see a warrior carting a massive basket of pan dulce on the back of his bicycle. Only two days earlier Toño had been dancing next to me at the Zapopan basilica in an ornate feather tenacho and a jaguar print Aztec danza costume.
“El es Dios,” I greeted him with the equivalent of a secret handshake among Mexico’s indigenous dance enthusiasts.
“El es Dios,” he replied, looking equally confused to see me in my street clothes.
He pedaled along using the same strength to navigate Guadalajara morning traffic as he had to leap three feet in the air countless times during the elaborate religious ceremony we had participated in over the weekend.
I, however, was suddenly grounded. Seeing my fellow danzante in such a mundane setting had made it clear to me just how spectacular my previous weekend had actually been.
In Guadalajara, Oct. 12 is celebrated as the Dia de la Virgen de Zapopan. The whole city shuts down as thousands of people line the streets to watch a parade of Aztec-style danzantes dance their way from the main cathedral in Guadalajara to the basilica in neighboring Zapopan. It’s quite an amazing sight to see the legions of dancers, some from as far away as Mexico City, glide past in full regalia in homage to the miracle-granting patroness of the city.
It’s even more amazing to actually be one of the dancers, especially if you’re a
two-left-footed pocha like me. As any of my friends or family members will tell you, my dancing skills would make even a post- K-Fed Brittany Spears cringe. But, during my pilgrimage to the basilica all of the proms and bar mitzvahs I spent avoiding the dance floor were a distant memory. The Virgencita must have worked one of her miracles because in my mind I was Martha Graham in a headdress.
I made the two-hour pilgrimage with my group, Grupo Ritual Azteca de los Hermanos Placencia, along the crowded route without drinking any water the entire way. Every half hour or so a volunteer would pass with a plate full of oranges and I would grab one, not so much out of thirst, but in order to distract myself from the aching in my hips and the blisters that were forming where my huaraches rubbed against the tops of my feet.
When we finally reached the basilica, even the most seasoned danzante had lost the spring in his step. But we pressed on to a room where a meal of carne asada was waiting, our semilla ankle bracelets echoing through the narrow streets of Zapopan. We danced four more hours that day in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the courtyard of the basilica and four more hours the following day. At the time I was too exhausted to let the beauty of it all sink in.
I didn’t come to Guadalajara expecting to participate in Danza Azteca. I had read about the elaborate ceremonies (in the past often ending in ritual sacrifice) that were performed in pre-Hispanic Mexico, but I had no idea what it involved or that there were still groups carrying on the tradition today.
So, in July when my friend invited me to watch her practice on an ordinary street corner in the middle of the city I had what Oprah Winfrey likes to call an “Aha!” moment.
“So that’s what they look like,” I thought as I watched dancers like Toño channel primal energy into magnificent footwork. “I can do that, I think.”
Then, I decided to jump in and try it for myself. The 100-strong group immediately sensed an outsider among them and after practice the group’s leader or general, a man resembling the Cowardly Lion after he received his courage, asked what I was doing there. I told him I couldn’t quite explain, just that it seemed like the right place for me to be.
I thought for sure he would banish me from the scene but in another unforeseen moment, he only gave me a three-toothed grin and invited me to stay.